One Community Conversations: Sarah Conti, Psychotherapist for Greater Boston

On this episode of One Community Conversations, Paige Slocum connects with Sarah Conti, a Psychotherapist with over 15 years in the field. She shares how to communicate with children with all ages, as you navigate working, schooling, and staying at home. 

Keep reading for ways to talk to your children without inducing fear, or listen to the full conversation here. 


What advice would you give parents during this time?

Sarah Conti: One of the things that I’ve noticed, as I have been reading the news, reading the paper, on various social media platforms, is there a lot of advice and guidance for parents about what to do to maintain their own sense of mental health to manage the new normal at home: working from home, homeschooling your children, and managing the anxieties and the unknowns of this entire situation. But I’ve seen less about what to do with the questions that your children might be bringing to the table or might not be bringing to the table. 

That’s hard to address in a short period of time. It’s hard to address even in one household because many parents have children at various developmental stages. And so how you address one child is going to be really different than how you might address another. So I wanted to have a little caveat up here that says, the number one thing to be able to address these concerns with your children is to follow the other advice you’re learning and reading about in terms of maintaining your own self-care to really get a handle on your own anxiety. 


What conversations should we be having with our children regarding the current situation?

Sarah Conti: What we need to do as parents is to identify our place of confidence and calm, while simultaneously addressing the fears of our children. And the trick there is to do that by validating their fears but not sharing your own. And that’s really hard to do.

If the child is small, they’re not as aware. So we’re talking six and under. Their routines will be different. They know that mommy and daddy go to work, they go to school, and then they come home and they get to play. So their routines are a little bit different. That can disrupt things like sleep for children. It can cause some behavioral difficulties.  You don’t have to bring up the virus to a child under six because they don’t know a virus. They do understand what germs are in a sense. So talking about why we’re washing our hands more, and why we can’t go to our school right now because the schools need to be cleaned for germs and that can take a while.

Kids slightly older, it obviously gets more complicated. For elementary school-aged kids, they might have an awareness of what’s going on. They’re obviously not in school. They are in touch with their friends in various ways. And this started while they were still in school, so they were hearing things from their friends, and they might come back with misinformation. It’s a parent’s job to correct the misinformation and to say that you have learned from the experts, what is happening, and that there are scientists who are really smart people in the world who are working really hard to learn about this. Tell your children, my job as a parent, is to find out that information and when I know the answer, I’m going to tell you. Parents need to take control, and we need them to know that we’re doing what we can to stay informed, then they don’t need to worry about finding it out. 

It’s important to stay aware and to be informed. But it’s also important to find a place and a time to do that. Avoid having the news on all day while you’re working from home while your kids are also home – even if they’re in their rooms. They’re sponges, even if they don’t understand the words, they understand the tone. And we know the tone of the news is really intense. 


There’s a different impact this is having on older kids. What feedback would you give to parents with middle school, high school, and college-aged kids?

Sarah Conti: I think that those parents with kids preteen and up have a really hard job right now. We all parents have a really hard job right now doesn’t matter if your child has a newborn or if your child is 17, this is really challenging for everybody. 

For teens, preteens in particular, are all about their friends. Even school for them is really social. It’s not about history class, it’s not about gym, it’s about their connections. The most important, developmentally, socially developmentally things that occur for adolescents happens between classes, and they’re getting all of the, you know, they’re getting all the juice of education in their classrooms.

It’s necessary to validate how hard this is. You can say:  You must really miss your friends. This really stinks that you don’t get to go to your dance recital. You worked really hard at that. And everybody who worked at this deserves to be able to celebrate how hard they’ve worked. Let’s think of creative ways where we can do something to celebrate it. 

You know, I encourage parents of high school seniors who – it’s heartbreaking. They’re heartbroken. Their kids are heartbroken. Get creative with graduation, get creative with recitals, with tournaments, make trophies at home, take pictures, do zoom award ceremonies, whatever, to try to include some of the celebratory experiences for them. 

I would say also for kids in adolescence, even young adults, is to approach them but don’t corner them. It’s important to ask them what they’ve heard. And what they know. Just ask them, what have you heard? What do you know about this? I have questions, do you have questions?


How can parents communicate with each other when feeling overwhelmed or frustrated?

Sarah Conti: If parents aren’t taking care of themselves and communicating with one another, then there’s no foundation for a sense of stability in the home. I think the number one go-to is to tell your partner what you need. 

Both sides can be frustrated with one another, but you can’t expect that your partner is a mind reader. And you’re not a mind reader to what they need and nobody has experienced this before.  And so I think the two recommendations I can give for that is to communicate what you need. Don’t expect them to know to guess. Ask what the other person needs too. You share what you need, but also ask, what do you need right now? And then appreciation goes a long way. Thank you for bringing me coffee when I was on this call. Thank you for doing bedtime tonight. Just being thankful for it and recognizing that it’s hard for everybody.

I think that at the end of the day, above all, if you take nothing away from any of this, it is continuing to provide reassurance. And this unconditional love and letting them know that you actually are enjoying parts of this, even that it’s been really nice to have this time together as a family. If we can convey that in our actions in our language then everything else sort of falls into place after that.